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A Life: Gibbons Gray Cornwell III, 1933 — 2013; ‘He’s What I Want to Be When I Grow Up’

Gibb Cornwell, in this 2002 photograph, served four years in the Air Force before going into medicine, and spent the 17 years after his medical career serving as an Upper Valley volunteer in many capacities. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph, courtesy of Geisel School of Medicine)

Gibb Cornwell, in this 2002 photograph, served four years in the Air Force before going into medicine, and spent the 17 years after his medical career serving as an Upper Valley volunteer in many capacities. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph, courtesy of Geisel School of Medicine)

Lyme — For the first dozen years of his retirement from medicine in the mid-1990s, Gibb Cornwell shared much of what he learned about computers with pupils at the Lyme School.

Little did the youngsters know how he’d spent the better part of 40 years of his professional life sharing what he’s learned about cancer, specifically leukemia, with medical students, colleagues and patients. Always with the same smile, and with the same undivided attention.

“I don’t think the kids pictured what he’d accomplished in his own right,” school principal Jeff Valence recalled last week. “He was just Gibb. Or Mr. Cornwell. He was such an understated individual. A kind, sharing human being.”

Which is how a parade of Lyme neighbors, fellow medical practitioners and parishioners of Norwich’s Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church have described Gibbons Gray Cornwell III since he died on February 3, 2013, at 80, after a long standoff with lymphoma.

“He loved his patients, and he worked so well with people,” said oncologist Joseph F. O’Donnell, senior advising dean and director of community programs for the Geisel School of Medicine — formerly Dartmouth Medical School. “Whatever the situation, whoever he was with, he would come in and say, ‘How are you doing?’ and it was real. ‘Tell me about the kids’ or ‘How’s Janice (O’Donnell’s wife)?’ You were the only person in the universe when he was talking to you — another doctor, a student or a patient.”

That’s what Geoff Carter and Laura Stephenson Carter learned upon moving to the Upper Valley and joining Saint Barnabas in the mid-1990s.

“When you’re involved in a community — whether it’s church or a volunteer organization or just at a party — sometimes you run into a person whom you just gravitate toward,” said Geoff Carter, now an environmental consultant living in Maryland. “You’re in a roomful of people, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that a person like Gibb is the sweetest soul in the room. He’s the person who’s going to seek you out and be the first person to shake your hand and welcome you.”

Just ask Jack Barrett, a physician Cornwell worked with during the early 1960s in Philadelphia, and reconnected with in Lyme, where Cornwell had put down roots in 1967 upon joining the medical school faculty and the medical center staff.

“When Ellen and I moved to Lyme, without having planned to do precisely that, Gibb and (wife) Mary were there to welcome us,” Barrett recalled during his eulogy for Cornwell at Saint Barnabas. “They made us the gifts of the friendship of their wonderful friends and the services of their dentist. The Welcome Wagon doesn’t do better than that.”

In return, Cornwell — whose service to Lyme included stints as a member of the School Board and Budget Committee, health officer and chairman of the nonprofit Lyme Foundation — rarely hesitated to ask neighbors and colleagues (old, new and renewed) to consider helping him with good causes.

O’Donnell found himself having a hand in establishing Hospice of the Upper Valley. Jeff Valence now serves on the board of trustees of the Lyme Foundation, where Barrett also did time, raising money for the Lyme FAST Squad, the Congregational Church’s nursing program and needy children at the school.

And fellow parishioners with no connection to Lyme weren’t exempt from such causes as donations of used computer equipment.

“He would refurbish (computers) and get them into the hands of people who couldn’t afford a computer and might be isolated because of it,” Geoff Carter recalled. “He believed that is was a tremendous advantage to connect people to their community.”

Cornwell used technology to double-down on his connections with Lyme and with the medical community after he retired from the section of hematology at the medical school and at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in the mid-1990s.

“If PacMan hadn’t been invented, Gibb would have invented something like it,” O’Donnell said. “He came up with this animated, interactive program for second-year medical students that showed immunoglobulins that were like PacMan, coming to eat up the bacteria or viruses in the blood.”

Cornwell also reached out with technology to a younger audience in Lyme.

“Gibb began his work as one of the driving forces behind getting technology into the school’s curriculum,” Valence told students and parents at Honors Night in 2007. “Since that time he has volunteered every week to help Technology Director Meg Franks teach computer classes to our students. As hard as it is to conceive of life without technology, it is harder to imagine our school without Gibb. And even harder to imagine where we would be without his effort, expertise and stewardship.”

O’Donnell can’t imagine where groundbreaking work at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center on bone-marrow transplants for leukemia patients would have gone without Cornwell’s support of then-young oncologists such as Ted Ball and Letha Mills.

“Gibb was the force who got through the politics,” O’Donnell said. “It was a fighter-jock mentality that he got from his time in the Air Force (four years before medical school): We were going into some kind of unknown territory, and he was the squad leader. He was unbelievably prepared for any contingency. He was going to get the team out and back safely.”

The Dartmouth oncologists also followed the leader into the Cancer and Leukemia Group B Trials, involving cancer centers around the country.

“Even though we were smaller than other centers like (the Boston-based) Dana-Farber, Gibb was right up there with the most prominent members because of who he was,” said Mills, who now practices at Mount Ascutney and Brattleboro Memorial Hospitals. “He was very respected for his viewpoints and his willingness to hear both sides.”

He also jumped into Mills’ corner while she tried to balance her work as the Hitchcock Clinic’s first full-time woman in hematology-oncology with the responsibilities of raising her family.

“He always treated me with the utmost respect, at a time where it was unusual to deal with things like maternity leave,” Mills recalled. “It made all the difference in my career to have him be so supportive.

“He was a gentleman like no other.”

More than three years after moving out of the Upper Valley, Geoff Carter doesn’t expect to meet another like Cornwell.

“Even among so many great people that we knew there, he was rare,” Carter said. “I think about him all the time. I try to be some of those things that he was in my own life. I hope I’m half as good as that.

“He’s what I want to be when I grow up.”